“Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.” -Dostoevsky
What is it that makes life worth living? The world gives us many answers: money, sex, and power being among the top choices. However, these promises of the world are empty. So often we fall into the trap of thinking “if only we had a little more” we’d be happy, but experience teaches us this isn’t the case. The great drama of human experience has far more for us than that which is offered in cheap thrills. There is a power that gives flight to everyday existence. It baptizes the humdrum and transforms the mediocre, making all things new. The power I am referring to here is the power to see beauty.
This power is one that everyone has, but not everyone uses, and even fewer perfect. And a serious question can be posed: Why? What is the benefit of having this sensitivity to beauty. We live in a culture that puts so much emphasis on things being worthy insofar as they are useful. Even people, the epitome of creation, are objectified and used. At first glance, beauty doesn’t appear to do anything for us. It’s not going to make us more rich or successful. It won’t help you get ahead. What is the purpose of it? Today I want to show what makes beauty so good, and how exactly we can tap into it.
Beauty is so objectively good, so true, and so worthy that without it, there is no point to anything being useful. We as a people really need to learn to change our perception of the world. We need to abandon this modern attitude we’ve acquired that tells us to only see worth in what is useful and learn to see the true objective goodness that exists at every moment around us. A man or woman who is numb to beauty will never be fully alive. Beauty is so good, that it can, and should, be pursued for its own sake; not for what it does for us, but what it does to us. It lifts us up out of the mundane. It brings us out of ourselves and into a higher realm. Because of this ability, beauty has a transcendental nature to it.
A large part of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophy deals with the notion of value. There are many things that have an objective goodness to them, outside of what is simply “subjectively satisfying for us. (1) Beauty is one of these things. It is not simply good because we say it is so; it is good, and we encounter that goodness and respond to it. When we encounter something beautiful and affirm it as such we are recognizing that the object of beauty is something that is good and beautiful even if we were never to see it. When I gaze upon the white mountains back home in New Hampshire, I see something truly beautiful. The beauty of those mountains speaks to my heart, and I am grateful for their existence. I am thankful that even when I am long gone from this earthly life; the knowledge that other people will encounter it is still a happy thought. When you encounter something beautiful, it really does spark something in your soul. It brings joy and breathes life into you.
However, becoming more sensitive to beauty is no easy task. There are many “vehicles” for beauty that are found throughout human experience: objects and encounters which help bring us out of ourselves and be struck by beauty. These vehicles serve not only to show us what beauty is, but also teach us how to recognize it so we can encounter it more frequently. There are three main categories of vehicles that I want to mention here, because I think they are the most common:
First, there is the beauty of creation. I already touched on this a little bit when I wrote about the mountains back home. When we look at the stars or the sea we are so often struck by the glory of it all. Music and art fall into this category as well. A good piece can move our hearts and our senses, again opening us up to encountering beauty in everyday life around us.
Second, there is the experience of human love. Through any form of human love whether it be friendship, or a family bond of any kind, there is truly an encounter with beauty. In his book Man, Woman, and the Meaning of Love, Dietrich von Hildebrand writes: “Love invariably includes, in each of its forms, an awareness that the loved one is precious as well as the presence of value which is so much a part of him personally that his full worth as a person becomes beautifully apparent. His immeasurable worth and beauty account for everything attractive and delightful in him.” (2) The recognition of beauty in the beloved leads to a deeper love and desire for union with them. We see a unity here, where beauty leads us into deeper love, while love illuminates our life and helps us see beauty in places we’ve never expected it. One example I can think of off the top of my head is that which we see in so many movies but happens often in real life as well: a hardhearted man falls in love with a woman, and in doing so begins to open himself up to the world of beauty. He learns to see things in a new light. The beauty has been there all along, but now the man has become open to seeing it.
Finally, there is an encounter with the divine. Though I wrote that these are “vehicles” for beauty, here we have the case where we are looking at the very source and summit of beauty. It is true that there are many people who encounter beauty only after being raised for years in a religious household; yet, we see so often the reverse. Because God is the source of beauty, many come to know Him through first encountering beauty. They recognize that the intrinsic and objective goodness that they are encountering speaks of something higher than the material world which leads them to faith.
An encounter with beauty is a step towards love, which for the Church means a step towards God. Both of which lead us to deeper appreciation of beauty. So where do we start? I suppose that’s different for every person. For some it will be in the museums and galleries; for others the mountains and valleys. Maybe a few will begin in their own backyard. The important thing is the striving; it’s out there and all of us have the capacity to see it; and no matter where we are at, we can always go deeper with it. We need to recognize the impact it can have on our lives and we need to want it. Dostoevsky wrote once that “Beauty will save the world.” Anyone who is attuned to beauty, who recognizes its touch on his life, who has followed it to its source, will tell you that it already has. We just need to open our eyes and see it for ourselves.
(1) Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, p. 39
(2) Hildebrand, Man, Woman, and the Meaning of Love, p. 13